By William Fisher
Such is the state of U.S. cable news and most other traditional media that when two big stories happen at the same time the rest of the world might just as well not exist.
Journalists and their editors are currently preoccupied with Libya and Japan, one caused by man-made hubris, the other triggered by natural disasters.
But as important as these stories undoubtedly are, there are other important events taking place and are largely going uncovered or under-covered by the so-called mainstream media.
So the American public might be forgiven if it didn’t know that dictators in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle East autocracies are banning demonstrations, violently breaking up gathering of protesters, and using paid mercenaries, snipers and its own security services to kill its own people.
Yemen is important to the U.S. because it is the home of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; US forces work with the Yemeni government to locate and snuff out the terrorists.
Bahrain is important to the U.S. because it is important to Saudi Arabia, a supplier of oil. Sunni Bahrain, just down the causeway from Sunni Saudi Arabia, sent in 2,000 troops to help Bahraini forces to help the king hang on to power. Bahrain and the Saudis are worried about the restiveness among the country’s Shia majority, and that majority, largely in the Eastern part of the tiny country, finding common cause with Saudi’s Shias, just across the bay. There have been a number of deaths in the past few days perpetrated by government soldiers and police.
In Saudi Arabia itself, the country’s aging king is attempting to “buy off” the protesters by sinking huge amounts of money into job-creating and training programs, plus giving each Saudi family a substantial cash gift.
In Syria, often thought to be the least likely target of pro-democracy forces because of the iron grip of President Basher al-Asad, demonstrations have grown larger and larger over the past few days and the Syrian military and police are accused of killing many demonstrators. Syria is said to be important to the U.S. because of its prospective role in peace talks with Israel.
And while this enormous ferment is going on, the United States is remaining virtually mute because it says these countries share strategic interests with Washington. Yemen holds the key to the defeat of Al Qaeda. The U.S. Fifth Fleet is housed in Bahrain. Saudi Arabia provides the U.S. with some 12 per cent of its oil; and countries in its sphere of influence account for a market share many times 12 per cent.
Libya is an oil-producer too. But it is ranked 17th in terms of world oil production and produces only about two per cent of world supply. Its oil is sold largely into Europe. Arguably it has zero strategic interest to the U.S., thus making it far easier to decide to proceed with the UN-endorsed, multi-nation “no fly” program on “humanitarian grounds.”
You may have seen snippets of reports on all these happenings during last week or so, and a lot more than snippets if you were watching Al Jazeera or the Real News Network via McClatchy Newspapers.
But what you almost certainly did not see or read much about is what might qualify as “good news” in the Middle East and North Africa.
Some of that hopeful news concerns Morocco. In the March 18 issue of Politico.com David Avital and David Halperin report that Morocco’s King Mohammed VI has established “a foundation for reform.”
Avital and Halperin recommend that the U.S. look to Morocco as a template. “While seeking to curb extremists from taking advantage of the unrest, Washington must change its habit of blindly supporting friendly autocrats, who favor stability over freedom. The U.S. must also work with its regional allies on reforms to create a blueprint for the model modern
The authors acknowledge that the Moroccan “model has yet to emerge.” Avital is an executive committee member of Israel Policy Forum. Halperin is a policy analyst at Israel Policy Forum and the Center for American Progress.
Morocco’s progress in recent years, they say, has been significant. “Since
becoming king in 1999, Mohammed VI broke away from his father’s brutal
policies during the ‘Years of Lead’ and immediately began a series of
These include permitting the return of political exiles, holding legislative elections, enhancing investing to alleviate poverty, modifying the criminal code and setting up the first truth and reconciliation commission in the Arab world to help mend the wounds of the past and set a new course, they write.
An article by Intissar Fakir, a special assistant to the Deputy President of the National Endowment for Democracy, published in the Arab Reform Bulletin, notes that King Mohammed VI’s March 9 pledge to sponsor broad constitutional reforms following moderately-sized protests on February 20 distinguishes him from other leaders in the region, most of whom have “offered too little in terms of reforms and offered them too late in the process of uprisings to make a difference. On the surface, King Mohammed’s proposed reforms are significant.”
But the lack of specifics about the depth of these reforms creates doubt in view of past experiences, the article says, adding:
“King Mohammed announced in a televised speech a process of constitutional change that will be put to a popular referendum. Proposed reforms would increase the parliament’s powers in unspecified ways, create a more independent judiciary, and grant elected officials executive powers at the provincial and local level within a decentralization scheme first introduced in 2010.
“Decentralization will redistribute power from an appointed governor to new regional representatives to be elected by the people. Under the reforms, the prime minister would have greater executive powers, and the revised constitution would contain greater assurances of political and civil liberties and human rights.
“A commission headed by constitutional law expert Abdelatif Mennouni is tasked with consulting with representatives of labor unions, political parties, civil society, and other interest groups to discuss the scope of these reforms over the coming months.
“The 18-member commission will include representatives from professional syndicates and human rights groups (such as Amina Bouayach of the Moroccan Organization of Human Rights), political activists, judges, as well as technocrats such as Omar Izziman and Lahcen Oulhaj (who represents Amazigh/Berber interests). The committee’s recommendations will be reviewed in June and then put to a national referendum. The king indicated that as soon as these reforms are ratified, they will be implemented.”
But despite the reform-minded agenda of its King, Human Rights Watch has reported that Morocco's security forces have sometimes dispersed large demonstrations “with considerable violence.”
But today (Feb. 20), says Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, “the security forces allowed Moroccan citizens to march peacefully to demand profound changes in how their country is governed.”
“Thousands of Moroccans in cities across the country demonstrated in favor of political reform on February 20, 2011. Mostly peaceful demonstrations and marches took place in towns and villages largely without interference from police, who in some areas were barely in evidence,” she said.
HRW said Morocco's demonstrators encountered none of the deadly force utilized by the security forces against protesters in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen.
“The partnership between the United States, Morocco and the Moroccan people,” Burns said, “is a very high priority for President Obama and Secretary Clinton. It’s never been more important than at this moment.”
Seizing this moment requires the United States to work with Morocco on a blueprint for systematic political and economic reforms that proactively respond to the region’s spreading unrest. A U.S. effort to help Morocco achieve a balance between these reforms and reverence for its own history and religious tradition would be a crucial symbol for the developing Middle East — and its growing ties with the West, HRW says.
Even more important, a U.S.-supported program to encourage greater media freedom, economic development and open political debate could jumpstart a path for Morocco to realize its leadership as a model for re-shaping the Arab world.
Others have suggested that Turkey offers a more reliable template for real change in the Middle East because, while it is still a work in progress, many of its reforms have come to fruition as a result of the governance process.
On the other hand, according to HRW, “Well-founded concerns persist in Turkey about politically motivated prosecutions. Prosecutors and judges have pursued unwarranted cases against journalists and editors, human rights defenders, individuals participating in demonstrations, and those engaged in legal pro-Kurdish political activity.”
The trial of Pınar Selek is an example. It is what HRW calls “a perversion of the criminal justice system and abuse of due process. The pursuit of this case for 12 years violates the most basic requirements for a fair trial. These baseless charges should be dropped once and for all.”
According to Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. (Istanbul), “The third attempt to convict the human rights activist and writer Pınar Selek on allegations that she was involved in a 1998 deadly explosion is a travesty of justice.”
Here’s the background: In 1998, Selek, then 27, had been working on a street art project in Istanbul when she was arrested. A 19-year-old youth, Abdülmecit Öztürk, was also arrested. The case against them was based on the repeatedly contested claim that the explosion was caused by a bombing and on an allegation of Selek's guilt made by Öztürk during interrogation. He later retracted his allegation in court, saying he had been coerced into making the accusation under torture by police. Selek also alleges she was severely tortured in police custody.
On February 9, 2011, Selek was scheduled to stand trial for her alleged involvement in a 1998 explosion in Istanbul's Spice Bazaar that killed seven people and injured more than 100. It is the third attempt to convict her for carrying out a lethal bombing, despite substantial evidence that there was no bombing and that the explosion was the result of a gas leak.
The court where the third round of this trial will be held, Istanbul Heavy Penal Court No. 12, has acquitted Selek and her former co-defendant twice on the same charges, in 2006 and 2008. The prosecutor appealed each time.
Despite the evidence from multiple expert bodies showing that the explosion was caused by a gas leak, Turkey's top court of appeal, the Court of Cassation, ordered her retrial again on February 9, 2010, saying that the explosion was a bombing she carried out on behalf of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Selek's co-defendant, who later testified that he did not know her, had originally made a false confession under police torture, implicating Selek. While he was acquitted of all charges, and his acquittal upheld, the inadmissible evidence in the form of this confession remains the sole basis of the case against Selek.
The Court of Cassation's most recent ruling calling for the third trial said that Selek should be retried under article 125 of the previous Turkish Penal Code (law no. 765), which deals with crimes against the integrity of the state, including armed attacks by outlawed separatist groups. She would face a sentence of aggravated life imprisonment, a life sentence without the possibility of release.
Selek is a sociologist who has campaigned and written extensively on human rights issues in Turkey, including issues of gender, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights as well as Kurdish and other minority rights. Her trial is one of the most striking instances of this pattern of unfair trials that appear politically motivated, Human Rights Watch said.
"The 12-year-long campaign to convict Selek for something that the evidence has repeatedly demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that she could not have done, shows that Turkey has a long way to go toward upholding fair trial standards and ensuring judicial independence," Sinclair-Webb said.
Police reports initially discounted a bombing and suggested the explosion was caused by a gas leakage. While the prosecutor who indicted Selek and Öztürk labeled the explosion a bombing, this was later refuted by three separate reports from experts in different university departments. Autopsy reports from the Forensic Medical Institute's First Special Department and later its General Board did not find any evidence that the deaths were caused by a bombing.
When Öztürk was acquitted on all charges, which the Court of Cassation upheld, the original trial court ruled that his statement was inadmissible as evidence against Selek. No other evidence, testimonial or forensic, was ever offered to establish any link between Selek and the explosion.
A written statement purportedly made by Öztürk's aunt in which she allegedly identified Selek as having visited her home was shown to have been fabricated when it became clear in court that his aunt spoke only Kurdish, not Turkish, and she testified that the police had forced her to sign a paper whose contents she did not know. In court, both Öztürk and his aunt stated that they had never even met Selek.
I have another misgiving about Turkey as a template for Middle East democracy. It is that country’s absurd treatment of the Orthodox Christian Church.
In an August 2010 episode of ‘60 Minutes,’ the audience heard one of the world’s most important Christian leaders say he feels ‘crucified’ living in a country which is Muslim-dominated. With as many as 300 million followers world wide Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew feels that the future of the Church in Turkey is threatened as there have been attacks over the years on the Christian properties as well as anti-Christian movements.
The episode showed that empty churches and lack of recognition of the minority religion by the government is almost threatening to destroy the very foundations of Christendom. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who is the leader of 300 Million of the world’s orthodox Christians, said that he is adamant to stay in Turkey because he felt that the orthodox Christians loved the country they were born in and want to die in. At the turn of the century there were as many as 2 million orthodox Christians but now there are merely 4000 left.
Observance of the rights of the minority – especially the religious minority – should be a litmus test for any country claiming to govern democratically. On this score, Turkey fails miserably.
And both Turkey and Morocco will have to have a lot more actual achievements to demonstrate before anyone should be comfortable about hailing them as examples of positive change in the MENA region.
We should applaud them for how far they’ve come. And we should be prepared to help them form more perfect unions – if and when we’re invited.